Issue 104 - September 9 2004



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The German press is still buzzing over the recent jailing and subsequent release of a German ship’s captain by Italian authorities following his rescue of 37 Sudanese refugees in the Mediterranean.  After locating their floundering rubber raft near Malta, the captain of the Cap Anamur brought the ailing men aboard, saving them from an anonymous death due to exposure, starvation, or drowning.  The captain then headed for Sicily and the more favorable Italian immigration policy only to find the port closed to him by Italian authorities.  It was as if the 37 Sudanese men were hazardous cargo. Helicopters and heavy warships were mustered against the Cap Anamur as the refugees looked on in disbelief at the resources brought to bear to block their road to a better life.  One of the men threatened to jump overboard before he would return to the life he knew in the Sudan and others echoed the pledge.  After a short political standoff, the rescue ship was allowed to dock in Sicily where the 37 refugees touched European soil and the captain of the Cap Anamur was arrested by the Italian police for violating laws against human trafficking. The Cap Anamur, a foundation-supported vessel operated for the purpose of open sea rescue, now finds itself at the center of a controversy that goes far beyond its altruistic charter as issues of immigration policy, acts of humanity, and neocolonialism collide.

Like many others from the continent of Africa, the rescued Sudanese men risked their lives to escape the life threatening political and/or economic conditions of their homes for the opportunities of Europe.  They, as countless others continue to do, set off on a dangerous journey in a less than sea worthy craft on the chance that a calm sea would usher them to a new future.  Had it not been for the Cap Anamur, the men would have likely succumbed to the fate of many others whose names and stories we will never know, lost at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that an estimated 2,400 people are known to have lost their lives over the past few years in the hope of reaching European shores while acknowledging that the true number of deaths may be much higher.

Many refugees make harrowing treks to the coasts of Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria to escape the harsh conditions of their homelands.  Once they have reached the Mediterranean, African refugees often are at the mercy of smugglers with promises of passage to Europe.  Many refugees don’t have the money the smugglers demand and find themselves stuck for years in the slums of cities along the African Mediterranean coast before they can raise the cash they need for a perilous open sea journey to an uncertain future in the slums of coastal cities in Europe.

The individual stories of bravery and sacrifice among the Cap Anamur 37 cannot hide the reasons for their flight.  In the Sudan, years of a repressive military regime, no less violent than that of Slobodan Milosevic, have left a country gutted by religious and ethnic warfare.  Unlike so-called Serbian aggression, the activities of the Sudanese ruling powers went unchecked by the western world for years and continue today.  Despite visits and threats by Colin Powell and Kofi Annan, Sudanese military leaders are waging a proxy war to solidify their control of the reportedly oil rich Darfur region of western Sudan. While western powers were willing to invest billions in executing a war in the Balkans, including the commission of troops to end ethnic cleansing and brutality, those powers did little to protect the Sudanese Christian population or now its African Muslim population from comparable acts of brutality.  It is one more example of the neglect of human issues in Africa by the West.  The list is too long to annotate.  From numerous civil wars, Rwanda, to the current AIDS epidemic, U.S. and European powers have been reluctant to address issues of need in Africa.  When they do, they offer little more than subsidies to western farmers in the guise of food aid, support of the banking system in the guise of loan forgiveness programs, rhetoric, empty promises, and closed borders.

During the former age of colonialism, Africa was seen as full of resources for the West, while the people of the continent, other than the best and the brightest of course, were not.  Africans today continue to find themselves segregated in the world as well as within countries in the Diaspora.  It is a physical and cultural segregation that allows those who control admittance into other more prosperous regions to determine which African will make it and which will not.  Those who try to sneak in where they are not wanted are often ostracized, jailed, and forcibly removed, if they are fortunate enough to arrive successfully on western shores.  Colonialism continues today in the form of neocolonialism.

Kwame Nkrumah, the first President of the post-colonial African state of Ghana noted that neocolonialism is ”the worst form of imperialism. For those who practice it, it means power without responsibility and for those who suffer from it, it means exploitation without redress. In the days of old-fashioned colonialism, the imperial power had at least to explain and justify at home the actions it was taking abroad. In the colony those who served the ruling imperial power could at least look to its protection against any violent move by their opponents. With neo-colonialism neither is the case.”(Kwame Nkrumah, Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism)

Neocolonialism seeks the same control afforded by the former system of colonialism through new techniques.  Where colonialism depended on raw power to enforce laws made for the exclusive benefit of the ruling elite, neocolonialism uses cultural and economic pressure to achieve its ends while holding raw power in reserve, just in case. De facto segregation, inequitable use of public resources, and predatory economic practices lock former colonies and colonial communities in a state of dependency complete with internal competition over the scraps of resources left behind.

African Americans know colonialism and neocolonialism first hand.  Colonialism is based on the concept of a stable pool of resources to be taken advantage of at the whim of the resource holder.  Those resources include the labor of the people within a colonial region determined by the powers that be.  The colonized people themselves are to ask for nothing and to be happy with the mere association with the colonizing power.  The colonizing force is free to invest in the colony when and if it wants, usually only to the advantage of further efforts of colonization and control.  The second civil war in the U.S. commonly known as the Civil Rights Movement was in fact a war against the particular home grown colonialism practiced in the U.S. where skin color and family lineage were the colonial borders for millions of people following the institutionalization of racism.  Just as with the Sudan following its independence from British rule, millions of African descendants in the U.S. faced political and economic oppression years after gaining the rights of citizenship.

The connections between Africans on the continent and those in the Americas and Europe are readily apparent from a neocolonial perspective.  All continue to deal with an insidious tribal and/or color consciousness constructed to make class delineation easy to see and invisible at the same time. For many in the West, darker skinned folks with African features should be in a lower class by birth, allowing everyone else lives in a society free of class-consciousness.  In Africa, tribal differences used by colonial forces in a divide and conquer approach still plague political cooperation within many nations.

People of African decent are told the importance of cultural assimilation with a society that marginalizes them at best and openly despises them at worst.  Frequently, the messengers are African descendants acting as agents of the social order.  Mr. Cosby’s recent comments aimed at poor blacks are nothing new in the global story of neocolonialism.  Africans are expected to turn, magically, limited resources into success because the opportunity to do so exists.  Opportunity proven by the logically questionable argument, “If one of you could make it, all of you could.”  Africans in the Diaspora and in large measure on the continent too are expected to forgo a sense of political and economic community among African descendants to cling to the values of individualism and conspicuous consumption so important for the maintenance of the “new world order”.  Africans worldwide are to value the approval of the culture in power beyond all others, including their own, to prove that they can be trusted before they can enjoy the trappings of success.  Entrance into the culture of power, like the countries of power, is “by invitation only.”

The story of the 37 Sudanese refugees on the Cap Anamur is similar to the many stories of Haitian refugees seeking a better life in the U.S.   Haitians today are being detained on Coast Guard ships and detention centers indefinitely all because they made the choice to risk their lives for the chance of a better future in a country whose policies are largely responsible for the certain life of poverty they face in Haiti.  If the Cap Anamur had sailed into Libyan waters and returned the 37 Sudanese refugees to their point of embarkation, this chapter of modern colonialism would be largely unknown.  Thankfully, the captain’s decision to face down the Italian gunships until the embarrassment caused by the standoff was too much for the Italian government to bear let us all see how current European, and by extension, western immigration policy is “old colonial wine in new neocolonial bottles.” Though it granted the Sudanese refugees the right to disembark, the Italian government, as expected, promptly denied the uninvited men the right of asylum.

James Culver, Jr. is a freelance writer living in Germany.  He can be reached at

COPYRIGHT ©  2004 James Culver, Jr.

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